Container Gardening, Part 2
High-Desert Gardening by Lesley Aine McKeown
The days have warmed, fortunately not to the scorching heat we usually get in June. The warm days and cool nights make for a happy garden.
You can water just once a day if you do it in the evening. But always check your soil to be sure: overwatering in containers is easy to do, and will cause root rot. Put a chopstick six inches into the soil. If the bottom five inches come out wet, you're fine.
Your young seedlings and small plants should have put on some pretty amazing growth over the past few weeks. While pepper plants don't do well when nighttime temps remain below 60 degrees, tomatoes, squash and cucumbers can grow inches in a day! In this part of the series we'll explore how to train and prune your plants for optimum harvest, fertilizing, and pests.
Tomatoes: Depending on the variety, you will be seeing flowering and fruit beginning to set on your plants. One thing that will help your plants produce better is to prune the suckers. Pruning tomato suckers is often recommended because the resulting new stem is competing for nutrients with the original plant. Your plant may have more fruit if you let the suckers grow, but the tomatoes will be smaller and the plant will be more cumbersome, requiring a lot of effort to stake as the summer progresses. Pruning tomato suckers makes your plants more manageable and more robust at the same time. It's easy to pinch them off with your fingers while still small.
Finally now is a good time to fertilize your tomatoes, as they are putting a lot of energy into flowering and fruiting. Expect to harvest cherry tomatoes in the next few weeks! It's a bit early to be seeing pests on tomatoes, but always check your plants thoroughly for signs of destruction.
Squash: You should be seeing your squash begin to bloom. Squash blooms are among the most beautiful in the vegetable garden. Zucchini, pattypan and crookneck squash flowers are bright yellow and shaped like gramophone bells. Squash plants produce male and female flowers; the male blooms first, followed by the female. If your plant is not “setting fruit” (producing baby squash), you may need to help it along. Pollinating your squash is easy and fun. Blooms open early in the morning, so be prepared to pollinate your plants then. Here's how to sex your blooms —
A male blossom is attached to the plant by a slender stem.
A female bloom has a swollen base, resembling a miniature squash, attached to the stem.
Time for squash sex! Pick the male blooms when they are fully open in the morning.
Remove the yellow petals and rub the anthers of the male bloom, which are covered in pollen, against the interior of the female blooms. You can clip the flowers closed with paper clips so you know which ones you’ve done. Voila!
Note: If your plants are only producing male blooms, it may be because they're too hot. Squashes flower poorly in periods of high heat or drought, with female blossoms often first to abort. Regular blooming usually resumes once the heat stress ends. Extra male blooms can be cut and placed in a cup of water for two days in the fridge, so you'll be ready when you get a female bloom! One male can pollinate three females.
Squash pests: The squash beetle is the bane of every organic gardener. The only way to rid your plants of them is to pick them off. You'll find them hiding under leaves and the undersides of stems. These bugs inject a toxin into the plant and suck the sap right out of it, leaving yellow spots on your leaves. Adults are dark brown or gray, and nymphs are gray with black legs. They move quickly and often in groups on the undersides of leaves. I keep a jar of soapy water by my plants, and pick the beetles off and drown them, as they emit an offensive odor. Place a wooden board in your garden and the beetles will congregate on the underside at night! Be sure to keep straw mulch away from squash as bugs love to hide in it. Finally, check the undersides of leaves for eggs, scrape them off and drown them. I know this is a lot of information about beetles, but trust me, vigilance now will prevent heartbreak later!
Fertilizer: Now is the time to fertilize your plants. They are putting a great deal of energy into growth, and container plants need extra attention. Follow the directions on your fertilizer of choice, always fertilize in the early morning or evening. Choose a balanced organic fertilizer. I like Dr. Earth Organic or Sweet Corn Nursery fertilizers. Dr Earth’s Pump & Grow Tomato and Vegetable Liquid Fertilizer is particularly easy to use and will feed your plants for two weeks.
A short note on companion flowers and plants. Flowers planted among your vegetables can not only be pretty, but helpful too! Placing these flowers near your container veggies can help keep pests away. Opposite is a list of companion flowers and plants.
Next: Surviving the high-desert monsoon season, more on pests and diseases, and some tips on how to use your harvest, great recipes and more!
Lesley Aine McKeown has been gardening organically in the Arizona high country for 42 years.
Good Companion Plants
Be sure to keep in
a separate pot,
mint is a big spreader!
Container Gardening, Part 1
High-Desert Gardening by Lesley Aine McKeown
There is so much satisfaction in picking a ripe tomato from your own garden.
Nurturing the young plant, the smell of the earth, rising every morning to water and inspect the growth, watching as your plants grow strong and flower with the promise of beautiful fruit — all this lures gardeners year after year to till their patch of soil and begin the cycle again. For many this is not innate or a skill learned from a gardening mother or grandmother. But the urge is still there.
This series is meant as a guide through the growing season here in Prescott for those who would love to garden but have yet to make the leap due to intimidation or uncertainty about what to do. For many the challenge is simple: space. This is where container gardening comes in. Containers offer a solution for those of us with space and time constraints, and can be every bit as gratifying as a full-scale garden.
Step One: Identify where you want to put your garden. Most garden plants and herbs require at least six hours of full sun per day to mature properly. In Prescott we have a fabulous growing season, but June can be a scorcher for young plants. Tomatoes tolerate the heat quite well, but pepper plants can suffer. Plan your container placement accordingly, or consider putting pots on small rolling stands so you can move them out of the afternoon sun.
Step two: Containers. You have a lot of options when choosing a container for your plant, and size is the first consideration. If growing tomatoes, choose a pot that holds least five gallons. It's best not to use black or metal containers, as they can heat the roots. Plastic five-gallon buckets, plastic muck buckets from the feed store, fabric grow bags (these tend to dry out quickly and you'll need to water more often), wooden planter boxes, and ceramic pots can all work fine.
Whichever you choose, it's important that there are drain holes in the bottom. Many pots come with punch-out holes, if not you will need to drill several holes.
A vertical garden is an excellent way to maximize space, and is fun and attractive. There are many vertical options, including pillar tier gardens, hanging felt pocket bags, and wooden boxes. It can be fun to arrange your containers in groups, such as an Italian theme with basil, tomatoes and rosemary! Adding flower pots to your grouping can add color, attract pollinators and deter pests. Marigolds, borage, nasturtiums, lavender, chamomile and cosmos are just a few good candidates.
Step Three: Soil, Soil, Soil. The soil you choose for your container is the single most important part of a successful garden. For container gardening it's doubly important.
I prefer a good organic potting soil, which has a higher variety of nutrients than regular potting mixes. Do not use yard soil in your containers, it tends to compact and won’t drain properly. In preparing your soil you'll need to mix organic, granular fertilizer into the containers from top to bottom before planting.
Place a paper towel in the bottom of your pot to prevent the soil from spilling out. Don't use rocks, they can clog your holes as the soil packs around them.
I like the fertilizers below, produced right here in northern Arizona by Sweet Corn Organic Nursery. You can order online with free shipping at sweetcornorganicnursery.com, and they offer a wide range of fertilizers, a vegan selection, live seedlings and seeds!
• MegaMator - Organic Fertilizer for Tomato Plants
• MegaVeggie - Annual Soil Amendment for Vegetable Gardens
• MegaSea - Water Soluble Seaweed Powder
Step Four: Select your plants. Choose plants that are suited for growing in containers. Ask the garden attendant if you're not sure, and check the attached list (facing page). Healthy, strong plants are the key to growing in containers. Our local nurseries Native Garden, Mortimer’s Nursery and Watters Garden Center all carry organic plants started right here in Prescott.
Choose plants with single straight, thick stems and healthy, dark green leaves. I prefer hearty heirloom varieties. But be sure to choose one that doesn't need pollination (some cucumbers and squashes do not self-pollinate). Ask which plants will work for your garden project.
Step Five: Water! Water your container plants thoroughly. How often depends on many factors, including weather, plant size, and pot size. Don't let the soil dry out completely, as it's hard to rewet. To keep large containers attractive, spread a layer of mulch on top, as you would in the garden. I use a layer of chopped straw in my garden, which comes in plastic bags from the feed store and are easy to store and handle. This will also help retain moisture. Be sure to keep the mulch an inch or so away from your plant stems.
Finally, a note about planting your food plants: handle them with care. Do not plant in the midday heat, which can stress the young plants. Tomatoes should be planted deep, with dirt covering most of the stem. The stem hairs are fragile, so try not to damage them in handling, they are future roots and will sprout when covered with soil. Water your plants after planting and be sure not to let them dry out as they settle into their new homes!
Next month: Fertilizing, caring for your new plants, pests and pest-control, and companion plants. Till then, happy gardening!